Those who enjoy the great outdoors and are interested in going off the beaten path in Brazil often travel a long way, heading to the Amazon, the Pantanal, or out to Fernando de Noronha. But for those with less time or money heading to Rio who are also interested in seeing some beautiful, wild places, I have two suggestions worth considering.
The first is a no-brainer: Ilha Grande. Accessible by boat or ferry from the ports of Mangaratiba and Angra, the aptly named Big Island is a relatively quick journey from Rio with lots of day trip boat tours. But it's worth it to stay the night. The island is a popular destination for foreign tourists, though less so for Americans. Development is very limited, and accomodations are basic. While some chose to stay in the main port, Abraão, one of the most beautiful places to stay is Palmas.
In Palmas, there are a scattering of small homes, a restaurant, a campsite, and two pousadas overlooking the beach. Both pousadas have gorgeous views of the bay with simple accomodations and electricity that goes off around 10pm. Tapera das Palmas, on the far end, boasts a large patio with stunning views and rooms overlooking the ocean. Run by an affable paulista and her sweet chatterbox daughter, the pousada also offers excellent and reasonably priced meals, with a yummy breakfast of tropical fruits and pastries included. Local characters also include an angry rooster ("Watch out--he bites," the owner warned us) and the lovable local dog, James. There's also a small dock where you can hail a boat taxi or sit and watch the sunset.
Both pousadas can only be reached on a short trail, where you might spot tropical birds, micos, snakes, and other wildlife. While you can take a 20 minute boat ride from the main port to Palmas, you can also hike there from Abraão, with spectacular views on the way.
Palmas has a lovely little beach, but one of its main perks is its proximity to Lopes Mendes Beach, considered one of the most beautiful in Brazil. At Lopes Mendes, there are a few vendors and a small building at the far end of the beach, but the beach is otherwise empty. If you get there early enough, you can walk nearly the whole length of the sand without seeing another soul.
But if you want to really go off the beaten path, you can head inland, leaving Rio for the mountains of Minas Gerais: specifically, Ibitipoca State Park. (In Tupi-Guarani, Ibitipoca means Serra Fendida, or Split Mountains.) It's easiest to drive--between 3.5 and 4 hours--but you can also take a marathon of buses from Rio to Juiz de Fora, Juiz de Fora to the small town of Lima Duarte, and from Lima Duarte to Conceição do Ibitipoca.
The park itself encompasses 15 square kilometers of rolling forests, soaring rock outcroppings, and beautiful waterfalls. Managed by the state government, the park is one of the cleaner, better-run parks you'll find in this part of Brazil. There are a number of trails to chose from, including the toughest Janela do Céu (Window to Heaven) and the easiest, Circuito das Águas (the Water Circuit). On the Water Circuit, you can dip your feet in a tea-colored stream along a mountain "beach," swim in waterfalls, dangle over cliffs, and climb in grottoes.
While the vistas alone make the trip worthwhile, you might be lucky to spot some of the local fauna, ranging from cougars to Brazilian wolves (lobos guará), from several species of monkeys to the vinaceous-breasted amazon bird and toucans, to the coati.
You can camp in the park or nearby, or stay at one of the many pousadas in the small mountain town of Conceição do Ibitipoca. There are also a wide variety of chalets to rent with basic but cozy accomodations. In town, you'll find a scattering of stores and restaurants, as well as a grocery store proudly announcing a butcher--coming soon!--and a number of town announcements, including a local forronejo show (bom demais!). It's a great place to eat delicious comida mineira and try xiboquinha, a delicious concoction of cachaça, cinnamon, and honey, as well as cloves, lime, ginger, and herbs.
Photos by me and Eliseu Cavalcante.